Study: E-Learning Implications

The good people of NCREL, the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, have come up with a “meta-analysis” on the effects of Distance Learning in K-12, and I’m not sure whether their study is incredibly validating – or a total disaster.

A meta-analysis is a study of a bunch of studies. Essentially, NCREL examined every respectable study on the effects of Distance Learning – any kind of Distance Learning – over the past five years and boiled them down to 14 that met all their criteria. Those 14 studies yielded “116 independent effect sizes drawn from a combined sample of 7561 students” (you can read the meta-analysis at “The Effects of Distance Education on K-12 Student Outcomes”. Their performances were compared to a control group of non-Distance Learning students.

Most of the students in the studies were in secondary school; the classes were either synchronous or asynchronous, or some combination; the classes were held five days a week, or not. In short, the study reviewed a wide variety of Distance Learning practices, with very different affordances.

The study does go through a series of caveats before stating their conclusion. It’s only one meta-analysis, after all. One must remember Piaget and of course Vygotsky. Some subject matter, like complex math, doesn’t quite work in a Distance Learning format. And we need more information.

But the study does have a conclusion, however tentative: “The analysis resulted in an overall weighted effect size not significantly different from zero…distance education is as effective as classroom instruction.”

My problem is, considering my deep antipathy to traditional classroom practice, I’m not sure whether the conclusion is good news or bad news. Another way of putting the results of the study is that nothing matters. Whatever educational choice you make – whatever technology (if any), and presumably pedagogy as well, it doesn’t matter. The students will do about the same no matter what – those who come to school motivated to learn and expecting to succeed by and large will, and those who don’t, by and large won’t. This implies that, if we want to change educational outcomes, we’re looking at the wrong end of the horse – instead of focusing on schools, teachers, pedagogy, and technology; we should be focusing on the much more difficult problem of the culture of poverty.

And we all know how likely that is.

Now I realize I’m jumping to conclusions; I’m going far, far beyond what the authors of the study state; E-learning is in its infancy and can get much better; and I really can’t believe the argument I’m making anyway (otherwise, what have I been doing all these years?). However, I know a simile that frightens me:

For decades, people would pay big money to big shrinks who would listen to their patients for years, helping them with their day-to-day anxieties. Scientists and some academics in the psychology community complained that no form of analysis was scientifically based, and therefore couldn’t possibly be affective.

Well, the research was done, and it turns out that there is no difference between a long, expensive analysis with an Ivy League psychologist, or regular visits with a social worker, or frequent chats with a good friend.

In other words, psychoanalysis is bunk.

Are we just like psychoanalysts?

Why don’t you stretch out on my couch and we’ll talk about it. But I’ve only got an hour…er, fifty minutes…..